Is the Divine the Unknowable Unknown? A Feminist Take by Ivy Helman

I attended a number of High Holy Days services (online) over the past couple of weeks. In one of them, one of the rabbis said that the divine is the unknowable unknown. I cannot remember what the Rabbi said to contextualize or explain their train of thought; I think I was too intrigued by the idea that I got lost in my own thoughts. In fact, I have been thinking about the unknowable unknown ever since.  

As I write this, I’ve come to this conclusion: if the divine is present among us and the world around us, then there is much we can intuit. In addition, there is much that we can experience the more we interact with other humans and nature.  On the other hand, if the divine is understood as a detached, distant being of a completely different essence than humanity, of course, what can we really know about such a divinity?  How would we even know if that divinity even existed? We probably wouldn’t.  Here is the difference between a  feminist understanding of the divine as this-worldly and empowering and a patriarchal conception of a distant divinity wielding power-over. Yet, interestingly, even the most patriarchal image of the divine has insisted on being relatable to human beings. Nonetheless, how we imagine the divine does matter.

In her book, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, Sallie McFague argues that the words and ideas we use to describe the divine are important. She advocates for the use of metaphors to describe the divine, stating that we can only describe what the divine is like, not what divinity actually is. In fact, she warns the reader of long-lasting models for the divine as these can lead to idolatry, an understanding that limits divinity and, because of this, is essentially untrue. She writes on page 99 that, “[i]f we use only the male pronoun [for the divine], we fall into idolatry, forgetting that God is beyond male and female…” In other words, we are limiting the divine and furthermore speaking an untruth.  

This talk makes we wonder if she too is of the camp that we cannot understand divinity; that the divine is quite different from us. I mean if we cannot and should not have any long-standing model for the divine but only use shaky fleeting metaphors, our understanding of the divinity is genuinely limited and amorphous. Yet, there is a difference between some knowledge and experience of the divine and the idea of the divine as the unknowable unknown, isn’t there?

That being said, I find much of what she has to say extremely helpful when it comes to traditional understandings of divinity.  In her book, she implicates as problematic the long-standing models of divinity as Father and King, among others.  These out-dated models move us further and further away from the divine because they are thought to definitively explain who the divine is in relation to us.  

Let us look at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as an example of this in Judaism.  Here, we have a day in which we are highly vulnerable as we reflect on the ways in which we have not always treated ourselves, others, the world around us, and the divine as we should (had hoped to). Yet, we enter the synagogue and repeatedly address the divine as Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King).  Why is the understanding of divinity that we approach one of judge, strict parent, and ruler over us?  Does that not drive a wedge of sorts between divinity and humanity? Does that not make being inscribed in the book of life seemingly impossible unless we are non-human-like?

Contrary to what we often hear in shul, Judaism recognizes some 70 diverse understandings, or names for the divine. These names range from Hashem (the Name) and Shalom (Peace) to Shechinah (the in-dwelling) and Kadosh Israel (the Holy One of Israel). And there are many, many more.  

Returning to our example again, instead of the umpteen rounds of Avinu Malkeinu, what would it be like on Yom Kippur if we approached the divine as Shaddai (Comforter), Hamakon (the Present One, literally the Place), or YHWH-Rapha (The One Who Heals)? These understandings seem to offer the compassion we need on a most vulnerable day.  How much easier would it be to connect to divinity that understands us?  Perhaps we could learn a little more about divinity in that case, and we could in the process become much closer to the holy?  And, isn’t that the point of Judaism? To be holy like the divine is holy?  I think so. 

From a feminist perspective, how we understand the divine has real-life consequences which can shape how we understand ourselves and the world around us. Just imagine what Yom Kippur would feel like, if we called on the divine that day as the comforter, the present one, and the one who heals. It would feel totally different, and for very good reasons.

Who would have thought that some three weeks ago or so, I would have heard a phrase about the divine that still has me in a quandary? I mean, in the end, I suppose there are ways in which the divine is unknowable. Importantly, though, that does not make the divine wholly unknown. Rather, it is often the language we use about the divine that puts distance between us and divinity, that makes divinity less and less known.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  

Author: Ivy Helman

Jewish feminist scholar, activist and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic.

2 thoughts on “Is the Divine the Unknowable Unknown? A Feminist Take by Ivy Helman”

  1. “Rather, it is often the language we use about the divine that puts distance between us and divinity, that makes divinity less and less known.” This is such an important statement. I have thought about this a lot, too, and I sometimes think that it isn’t that the divine is unknowable, but rather that our language has no words to describe our deepest, most personal experiences of the divine. If the divine is considered by our culture to be unknowable, then there will be no words that will allow us to communicate what we know of the divine. I think you have done a great job in your suggestions of changing the language to one of comfort, presence, and healing, which to me are much closer to my own intuitions about the divine.


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